This is the day of Pentecost, an important day on the Christian Calendar. In fact, I believe that after Easter and perhaps Good Friday Pentecost is the most important date for Christians. Pentecost, the Greek word for fiftieth, arrives on the fiftieth day after Easter. There are two common themes that lift up the importance of Pentecost. One is the birth of the church. That is the story of the book of Acts, which is the telling of the first Christian community by the author of Luke. In fact, what we heard in today’s passage from Acts was the first stirrings of that community initiated by tongues of fire and a mighty wind that blows through the house in which the disciples are hiding, blasting them out into the streets in a frenzy.
This brings us to the other symbol of Pentecost which is that it signifies the gift of the Spirit. That is the mighty wind that blows the disciples into action. The Greek word for wind is pneuma, which is also the Greek word for Spirit. So the mighty wind is code for the Spirit which forces the disciples out of hiding and into action. The narrative is that this is the advent of the Spirit, that this when the Spirit comes into the world. That prior to this there was no Spirit and after this event the Spirit was in the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples when he breathes on them, to receive the Spirit. Remember that pneuma is also the word for breath. Pneuma is the word for Spirit, it is the word for breath, it is the word for wind. Pneuma. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
But there is a problem with this notion of the “gift of the Spirit,” there is a problem with the notion that the Spirit is a new thing. The problem is that it privileges the Christian experience, it implies that Christians own the divine or that Christians have a special relationship to the holy. Too much of our history has been replete with Christian exceptionalism that imagines that we are the special people of God. When we first began colonizing Turtle Island there was a feeling that we were bringing God here, that we are the keepers of the divine, which is patently absurd.
The fact is, if you’re the kind of person who believes in facts, the fact is that the Spirit has been around since the dawn of creation. If we go back to the very beginning of the Hebrew bible, if we go back to the first verses of the first chapter of Genesis, if we go back the first creation myth, and I know that it is a myth it’s just that sometimes, well most times actually, I believe that myths are more important than so-called facts, if we go back the beginning we see the presence of the Spirit, the breath of God.
When we read the first verses of Genesis from the NRSV, the most common translation used in the United Church, we read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” We hear of the wind from God, which in Greek is pneuma but in Hebrew is Ruah. The wind from God, the breath of God. The Ruah.
Catherine Keller offers a more poetic translation filled with transliterations. Listen to this: “When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was upon the face of tehom and the ruach elohim was vibrating upon the face of the waters.” Creator is Elohim, not the old man in the sky, not a being but a beyond-being, a mysterious “they” creating out the tohu vabohu, the pre-existent primal chaos that has been roiling since before time. Darkness was on the face of the tehom, the deep, the recondite roiling rush of ruckus, chaotic and unfathomable. The deep. And the ruah Elohim, the breath of the mysterious divine beyond the beyond, vibrated upon the face the deep, these wild waters, the tehom, the unknowable pre-creation.
Keller suggests that the ruach Elohim vibrated or pulsed over the chaotic deep. The spirit, the breath of God, the ruach Elohim is intrinsic to chaotic deep, the tehom. In the beginning was chaos and the ruah Elohim created out the chaos. The the ruah Elohim did not create order out of chaos per se but ordered some of the chaos into new creation.
Because we don’t have a cosmos, a Greek word privileging some imagined ordered universe. The universe is not a neatly ordered space. Instead we have is what James Joyce called the chaosmos. In Finnefan’s wake Joyce writes that the “chaosmos of Alle anyway connected in the gobbleydumped turkerey was moving and changing every part of the time.” What Joyce poetically understood was that order does not rule the universe but that chaos is intrinsic to reality. Chaos theory tells us that complex organization cannot come into being through orderly step by step growth. Such systems tend to stagnation, folding in upon themselves, stick in a cul-de-sac, never changing enough to complexify. Instead for complex organizations to occur chaos is necessary, randomly unsettling, jiggling the system just enough that new orders and new ways of being come about. Chaos is a necessary part of new life.
And the Spirit is a kind divine chaotic force, The Spirit rushes though our lives and our worlds, eroding our ossified ideas and our desire for stability and sameness. The Spirit is the mysterious trickster of the Elohim pulling away our chairs just as we are about to take a seat so that we have a comic pratfall. The spirit always keeps us guessing and won’t let us settle into the 19th century binaries like good and evil, black and white, male and female, god or no-god. The spirit is always on the move; it won’t sit still and won’t let us sit still.
The spirit is the mighty wind that wouldn’t let the disciples sit still; blowing through the house they were hiding in. David Lose suggests that the Spirit may not have been welcome, that the Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but creates them. If it weren’t for the Spirit, the disciples might have gone back to their previous lives as fisherman. You can imagine James and John the sons of Zebedee talking to Peter and saying, “You know, it was a great run and Jesus was amazing and all but maybe we better get back to Galilee and take over the family business. But the Spirit will have none of it. There is no return to normalcy; instead the disciples are driven out into the world to spread the bizarre news that God has brought new creation into the world through an itinerant preacher from the rural north who was crucified for treason. The Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but creates them.”
And we here ate Wesley have to get in the way of the Spirit and embrace the problems the Spirit makes for us. We need to get out into the world and engage the challenges of our neighbourhood of our world. We need to engage the neighbourhood and the challenges of new Canadians struggling to understand a new language and a new culture, of University students trying to grow into adulthood, of First Nations University as it nurtures indigenous folk into life in 21st century Canada while at the same time nurturing Canada into a post-colonial country. The Spirit doesn’t let us off the hook.
And Lose points out that not only does the Spirit come creating problems it also comes “inviting failure. It invites us to fulfillment and right relationship through our setbacks and our failures.” Failure is not only an option it is inevitable, the problems facing the world are too huge and complex for simple solutions. It is only through trial and error that we can approach solutions to such overwhelming problems. The chaos of the Spirit is the spirit of innovation and new creation. And this is good news. There is reason for optimism. “An optimist is someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster it’s more like a cha-cha.” Failure is a good thing. We must embrace failure if we are to be agents of the chaotic Spirit.
And that is my hope for us here at Wesley United Church is that we go out into the world and embrace failure; that we innovate and fall down and get up in the interests of co-creating a better world. That we see failure as Spirit dancing. Doing the chaha. That like Peter quoted we shall see visions and we shall dream dreams. That we dream of a better world, a more just world. That we have visions of the beloved community where strife and inequality are no more and that through chaos and failure we can participate in the genesis of new creation. Amen.
ReferencesCatherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, (New York, Routledge), 2003.
David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1575
The Mind Unleashed, https://www.facebook.com/TheMindUnleashed?fref=photo